Del Heuke decided to join the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) after she saw an advertisement in the newspaper.
She was in her early 20s, had recently finished training as a nurse and was working at a regional hospital in Tullamore, NSW.
“I thought it would be interesting,” Del said.
Essentially she was following in her father’s footsteps – he was in the air force during World War II.
It was this decision that led her to be awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours on Monday, June 11.
The former Wingham resident has been recognised for service to veterans and their families.
Her service includes a range of volunteer positions including her work with the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL) Wingham Sub-branch as a pensions and welfare officer since the 1980s.
Del, who now lives in Forster, said her motivation to help veterans and their families came from her experience as a RAAF nurse.
After an extensive recruitment process lasting two to three days, Del was accepted and began her induction training in Laverton, Victoria.
She was 23 years old when she found herself part of the RAAF Nursing Service during the conflicts in South East Asia during 1965 and 1966.
Initially she was in the hospital at Butterworth, Malaysia before moving onto casualty evacuation in Vietnam and Borneo.
“We took those injured or killed back to Butterworth,” she recalls.
“We nursed the injured until they were well enough to make the three day journey back to Australia.”
After she sent them home, she never heard about them again.
“We picked up these young men in these dire circumstances,” she explained. “ We brought them back and that was the end of it. We never knew what happened to them.
“I always wondered what the rest of their story was.”
Del met her husband, Fred on the first night she arrived in Malaysia, and when they decided to get married in 1966, she was forced to resigned due the RAAF marriage ban for women.
In 1968, after having their first child, Fred was sent to Vietnam. Together they spent many years moving around for his career and in 1980, when he retired, they moved to Wingham.
They both became involved with the Wingham RSL sub-branch.
Del said she wanted to help ease the struggles of veterans and their families.
“It’s not about me,” she said.
She knew first hand how difficult it is for them to “fit back into their community; a community that has no idea what you've been through.”
A couple of years ago, Del ended up being reunited with one of the men she evacuated, finally learning about what happened to him after he left.
“It was one of the most rewarding experiences,” Del said. “Closing of the circle.”
Del is still actively involved in the Wingham RSL sub-branch which has a Veterans Welfare Advocate office open every Wednesday from 10am until 2pm to help veterans and their family access services and entitlements.
It’s held at Manning Valley Neighbourhood Services at 4 Farquhar Street in Wingham. Appointments can be made by calling the centre on 6553 5121 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.